Notes on “Days of Rage” (1)

Over the weekend I read Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. I read it in preparation for the brief interview we recorded with the author yesterday afternoon for the Power Line podcast posted here. I would like to share notes, thoughts and excerpts in a series of posts, of which this is the first of what I think will be three.

My inspiration here is Jay Nordlinger and his Impromptus column at National Review. When Jay flips over a book or a movie or a conference or an interview, he uses his column to empty his notebook. (This past summer, for example, Jay devoted a three-part series of Impromptus to “D’Souza Nation.”) That’s what I’d like to do as long as my ammunition holds out. (Burrough’s book has me thinking in metaphorical violence.) My goal is to interest you sufficiently in the book to buy a copy and read it.

• Burrough is an outstanding reporter and Days of Rage is a gripping book. To employ another violent metaphor, the book blew me away. Much to my surprise, I found it riveting.

• The book covers the period 1969-1985 in telling the story of six homegrown radical groups that conducted terrorist campaigns against the United States. Their operations in total included thousands of bombings of skyscrapers, federal buildings and businesses from coast to coast. Included among the targets are the Pentagon, the Capitol, a courthouse in Boston, a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners, and, yes, indeed, the World Trade Center. In 1972 alone, according to Burrough, there were 1,900 bombings in the United States, virtually all of them carried out by the radical homegrown groups.

• The operations of the radical groups also included scores of bank robberies and assassinations of police officers. In the course of the book, police officers are murdered in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. Among other aspects of the guerilla war conducted by the groups Burrough covers, the targeting of law enforcement by the Black Liberation Army in particular strikes a chord with current resonance. I was astounded by the history I didn’t know and its relevance to current events. Looking around online, I found that Andy McCarthy’s review of the book in the May 18 number of National Review stands out in bringing home this element of the book. The review is accessible in digital form to subscribers under the heading “A not-so-distant mirror.” A not-so-distant mirror, indeed. That is Burrough’s book.

• This is Burrough’s sixth book. In the author’s note that prefaces the text, Burrough writes: “Without a doubt this is the most difficult project I have ever attempted. During more than five years of research, I thought of quitting any number of times. When I began the work in 2009, I had no idea of the challenges involved, or the complexities of dealing with veterans of the radical left. If you said I was naieve, well, I couldn’t argue with you.”

• Did I mention that the book is exciting? It is of the can’t-put-it-down variety. It features daring jailbreaks and more close escapes than The Fugitive as well as more thrilling car chases than Popeye Doyle’s in The French Connection.

• Burrough notes that Malcolm X declared war and called for guerilla warfare on the United States in 1965. He also quotes Malcolm X responding to a question about the assassination of President Kennedy. He responded: “Chickens coming home to roost never make me sad; they make me glad.” That struck a chord with current resonance too.

• The radical groups covered by Burrough include the Weatherman (as the originally group called itself) or Weather Underground (1969-1977), the Black Liberation Army (1971-1973), the Symbionese Liberation Army (1973-1975), the FALN (1974-1980), Sam Melville Jonathan Jackson Unit or United Freedom Front (1976-1984), and the Mutulu Shakur Group or “The Family” (1977-1981). Each is interesting in its own way.

• Burrough demonstrates that the FALN was probably the most adept of the groups in its terrorist operations. Burrough strikes a chord with current resonance again and leaves the reader’s blood at high boil as he notes in his epilogue: “Eighteen members of the FALN served lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the group’s two campaigns. In the mid-1990s, a clemency campaign drew the support of former President Jimmy Carter and ten Nobel laureates. In 1999, with his wife, Hillary, seeking the support of Hispanic voters for a senatorial campaign in New York, President Bill Clinton offered clemency to sixteen of those imprisoned; all but two accepted.”

• Drawing on memoirs, narrow histories (such as Kirpatrick Sale’s history of SDS), his own interviews, and unpublished monographs, Burrough pieces together the story of the six groups from both sides: from the side of the terrorist perpetrators, and from the side of law enforcement striving, mostly impotently, to apprehend them. “This book,” Burrough writes, “is intended to be a straightforward narrative history of the period and its people.” I believe it is the first book to attempt something like a comprehensive account from both sides of the story.

• I intend to devote the third post in this series to the New York Times and its review of the book. Having mentioned Andy McCarthy’s excellent NR review above, I would also like to note the excellent Wall Street Journal review by Peter Hellman, “A pestilence of bombs.” Hellman is the coauthor, with the late NYPD Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman, of Chief. Seedman appears in the book in connection with the bombings of 1969 with which the book kicks off.

• Burrough credits Peter Collier and David Horowitz for their essential reportage on the Weather Underground in 1982, a long piece originally published in Rolling Stone. The piece is collected in Peter and David’s altogether essential book, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, which leads off with a profile of Fay Stender, a radical lawyer who makes a cameo appearance in Burrough’s book.

• I emailed David as I was reading the book over the weekend to ask him for his impression. He observed: “On balance I would say it’s an important step towards re-establishing a reasonable historical record. Until now, virtually all the books on Weatherman and the Panthers etc. have been leftwing mythology. How does he treat Assata Shakur and the BLA? She is a cold blooded killer and at the same time a hero of the current Baltimore lynch mob.”

We have barely scratched the surface so far. We have yet get to Assata Shakur, for example, another figure who gives the book its current resonance. I want to leave off here for now lest this become too unwieldy.